Tricycle Q & A: B. Alan Wallace

B. Alan Wallace answers questions from Tricycle readers.

1. yeshe asks: What connection is there between Sanskrit "atman" or Tibetan "bdag," usually translated "self," and the Western notion (religious or otherwise) of "soul?" In other words, in what way, if at all, is the Buddha's teaching on no-self a teaching that we have no soul?

While Buddhism is widely known for its emphasis on "no-self," this does not mean that the Buddha completely refuted the existence of the self. In fact, on one occasion when the Buddha was questioned about the existence of a self, he refused to give either an affirmative or a negative answer [Samyutta Nikaya IV 400.] According to his own explanation later on, if he had completely denied the existence of a self, this could have been misunderstood as a form of nihilism, or a philosophical rejection of reality altogether. This was a position he was always careful to avoid. He did challenge us to examine through our own experience and with rational analysis whether we exist as unchanging, unitary, independent selves. We can further investigate our own experience to see if we truly exist as selves, or souls, existing apart from the body and mind and somehow in charge of them, like a CEO in the company of the body-mind. In the Buddha's teachings recorded in the Pali language, he did refute the existence of such an independent self, or soul, and this is the basis for the Buddhist notion of "no-self." On the other hand, in some Mahayana teachings, specifically those on the Buddha-nature, discourses attributed to the Buddha declare that our true identity is found in our Buddha-nature, or what is called "pristine awareness" in the Great Perfection of Tibetan Buddhism. Whether any of these teachings refute the existence of the "soul" depends entirely on how we define that term.

2. deegy asks: What do the Buddhist teachings say about politics and how one should relate to that area?

Regarding the Buddhist attitude toward politics, it is helpful to note that the Buddha himself came from a royal family, so he was raised in a political milieu. After his enlightenment he commonly interacted with political leaders, frequently counseling them on how to run the affairs of state. This was also true of later Buddhist sages, such as Milinda, Nagarjuna, Padmasambhava, and many others. As for us living in the modern world, the realm of politics is one in which great good can be done for society and also great harm. Historically, Buddhism has never been apathetic about the affairs of state, as we have seen most recently in the political activism of Buddhist monks in Myanmar. But Buddhism also responds to the urge for political activism with a note of caution: as we become active in politics, we should closely examine our minds and motives in order to recognize how much our own mental afflictions of attachment to our side (our views, etc.), hostility for the other side (seeing our opponents as evil, inferior, contemptible, etc.), and the delusion of reifying the separation between ourselves and others. Insofar as our own minds are subject to these mental toxins, the best kind of activism is first to purify our own minds and cultivate such virtues as wisdom and compassion. Insofar as we see that our motives are altruistic and our actions are guided by sound judgment and clarity of vision, then it is quite appropriate to spring into action and offer the world the best we have to share.

3. SouthernSchool asks: Some Buddhists are proud that modern science seems more "Buddhist" than e.g. "Christian." But to me it seems modern science is absolutist and atheistic, and therefore no religion should try and cozy up to it (or vice versa.) Can you speak to this? Thanks.

I believe it's an over-generalization to say that science as a whole is absolutist and atheistic. According to a 1998 poll reported in the journal Nature, when queried about belief in a "personal god," 7% of the members of the National Academy of Science responded in the affirmative, while 72% expressed "personal disbelief," and 21% expressed "doubt or agnosticism." According to another poll published in the Scientific American in 1914, 40% of scientists stated that they believed in God. A poll with the same set of questions was again conducted in 1997, also reported in the Scientific American, and it indicated that 40% of scientists still believe in God. A more recent survey indicated that 60% of scientists claim to believe in God. The National Academy of Science formally declares, "Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral." Clearly, scientists are divided on this matter, so they are certainly not uniformly atheistic. People who take an absolutist stance regarding science are commonly said to promote "scientism," which entails the beliefs that (1) science is our only source of genuine knowledge about the world, (2) it is the only way to understand humanity's place in the world, and (3) science provides the only credible view of the world as a whole. While it is true than many scientists and their followers advocate this kind of ideological fundamentalism, similar in many respects to religious fundamentalism, many reject this simplistic view of science. In 2003, while attending a meeting at MIT, I was struck by the open-mindedness and humility of the president of MIT and the director of the genome project there--two outstanding scientists! In short, in science, as in all other human institutions, one finds individuals who are closed-minded and dogmatic and others who are open-minded and sincerely interested to learn from other fields of inquiry and other cultures. In the interface between Buddhism and science, as I've experienced this, it is not a matter of science or Buddhism trying to "cozy up" to the other. Rather, I have found people of good will and keen intelligence and curiosity seeking to learn from each other. It is fascinating to bring into collaboration diverse modes of inquiry (e.g., the objective, third-person methods of science, and the subjective, first-person methods of Buddhism) into such aspects of reality as the human mind and its relation to the objective world. This is not a matter of science validating Buddhism or Buddhism validating science. It is a question of open-minded inquiry, recognizing the strengths and limitations of one's own discipline, and eagerly seeking to learn from the methods and conclusions of others.

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